How the rich deferred bonuses to avoid the 50p tax rate

Earnings rose by an unusual high of 2.1% in the latest quarter but only because bonuses were paid in April, rather than March, to benefit from the new 45p rate.

At a time when Labour is attacking the coalition for presiding over a "cost of living crisis", the latest figures on earnings contain the superficially good news that the average weekly wage, including bonus payments, rose by 2.1% between April and June compared with the same period last year - the first time the growth rate has exceeded 2% since late 2011. 

But read on and it soon becomes clear what lies behind the spike. The ONS notes that "The relatively high growth rate for April to June 2013 partly reflects unusually high bonus payments in April 2013. Some businesses have reported that they paid bonuses in March last year but in April this year." 

The ONS doesn't explain why they did so, but it might just have something to do with the fact that April was the month that the cut in the top rate of tax to 45p took effect. Had businesses paid out bonuses in March as usual, they would have been taxed at the higher rate of 50p - this was avoidance on a grand scale. 

If we strip out bonuses, average weekly earnings rose by just 1.1%, 1.8% below the rate of CPI inflation. As the Conservatives resurrect the myth that "we're all in this together", today's figures are a salutary reminder that we're not. 

George Osborne attends a press conference on July 19, 2013 during the G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors' meeting in Moscow. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.